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Think You Know What Occupational Therapists Do? Think Again!

by Clinton Boone

Occupational therapists are critical members of the rehabilitation (and overall healthcare) team, yet their role is often misunderstood. We're here to bust some myths about occupational therapists, and shine a light on this wonderful profession!

Do you really know what occupational therapists do?

Those of us in healthcare are generally aware of  occupational therapists' typical roles and duties. However, as many occupational therapists will tell you, the public is often unaware of an occupational therapist’s scope of practice.

Kate Loukas, a clinical professor at the University of New England’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy Program, explains that occupational therapists focus on occupational performance of individuals, populations, and communities. Occupational therapists work on the volition of the client and often use a strength-based approach.

Despite the powerful influence of occupational therapy in patient care and patient outcomes, there are many myths and misconceptions about occupational therapists. Let’s set them straight.

Occupational therapy myth-busters

Myth: Occupational therapists' main role is to help people find jobs.

When referring to the field of occupational therapy, “occupations” can be broadly defined as things you want or need to fulfill life roles and find meaning. Occupations include work, play, education, rest, activities of daily living, instrumental activities of daily living, and social participation.

OTs promote and increase independence with these everyday tasks. Therefore, occupational therapists can routinely work with children, retirees, special needs populations, and unemployed adults.

Myth: Occupational therapists only work in hospitals.

OTs can work in a variety of settings, including skilled nursing facilities, schools, day care centers, community programs, home health, mental health facilities, and outpatient clinics. Many occupational therapists will perform treatments in the patient’s home, as this is where many patients spend most of their time.

Some occupational therapists may even accompany patients to their job sites. For example, an OT might assess the workplace environment, educate patients on workplace ergonomics, or provide workplace modification recommendations to employers and management.

Occupational therapy can be performed virtually anywhere. Many occupational therapy treatments can be carried out without specific therapeutic devices or exercise equipment. Creativity is crucial to promoting optimal patient rehabilitation.

Myth: Occupational therapy is the same as physical therapy.

Although OTs and PTs often work closely together, they are not the same. Physical therapists focus on overall mobility, while occupational therapists focus on activities of daily living. However, this is not a hard-in-stone rule-of-thumb.

Similarly, physical therapists generally work on gross motor movements, while occupational therapists work on fine motor movements. But again, this cannot be generalized to 100% of all cases.

Myth: Physical therapists can perform occupational therapy.

From my experience, many patients are under the belief that physical therapists can fulfill the roles and duties of an occupational therapist. As mentioned above, although OTs and PTs can co-treat, a PT cannot do an OT's job, and vice versa.

Myths: Occupational therapists only work with the elderly and patients with special needs. Occupational therapists only help people with their activities of daily living (ADLs).

Occupational therapists have a wide scope of practice and work with people of all ages – including newborn babies and children. On average, one-third of an OT's caseload is children. Occupational therapists work with people across the lifespan, from neonatal care to hospice.

Occupational therapy is appropriate for anyone looking to increase their overall independence during any stage of life. Examples include a child with attentional and sensory issues, an adult post-motor vehicle accident with a spinal cord injury who needs to learn how to use a wheelchair, or a young child struggling with his or her handwriting.

Myths: Occupational therapists only work on hands. Occupational therapists can only work on the upper extremities.

This is a common, yet false, myth about occupational therapists. Occupational therapists can work – within their scope of practice – on any part of the human body, even the lower extremities, and spine.

Myth: Occupational therapy is boring.

Occupational therapy can be custom-tailored to tasks in an individual’s life. As mentioned earlier, occupational therapy can often be performed without specialized therapeutic equipment.

More recently, motion-controlled video games (e.g. Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect) have become increasingly popular in therapeutic settings for patients of all ages. The Xbox Kinect Sports and Wii Sports games can deliver many therapeutic benefits, such as improvements in gross and fine motor planning, increased upper extremity activity, and improved core control. The Wii Fit game allows patients to work on balance, coordination, and spatial awareness. Games like Dance Dance Revolution, Kinect Dance Central, and Kinect Training work on building a patient’s strength, activity tolerance, and ability to follow sequences.

All of these games allow for a wide variety of sensory input. When working with children, they are often unaware they are participating in a therapeutic treatment; they simply believe they are playing a video game for fun!

The future of occupational therapy

In 2017, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) celebrated its 100th anniversary! Like the APTA, the AOTA has its sights set far into the future. The AOTA has outlined their ideas in the Vision 2025 plan. The focus of the AOTA’s Vision 2025 is to ensure all occupational therapists are:

  • Accessible: Occupational therapy provides culturally responsive and customized services
  • Collaborative: Occupational therapy excels in working with clients and within systems to produce effective outcomes
  • Effective: Occupational therapy is evidence-based, client-centered, and cost-effective
  • Leaders: Occupational therapy is influential in changing policies, environments, and complex systems

Currently, a master’s degree is considered the minimum educational requirement to practice occupational therapy. However, the AOTA’s Vision 2025 has stated that a doctorate should be considered the entry-level education for occupational therapists by the year 2025.

Thank an occupational therapist today!

I hope this cleared up some common myths about occupational therapists. Wish your OT friends and colleagues a happy Occupational Therapy Month this April!

Special Thanks to current faculty members and graduates from the University of New England’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy Program.

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